By Diarmaid MacCulloch
What constitutes Christian love amid the sweaty delights of sex? Organized religion always takes an interest in sex, usually so it can tidy people’s sexual lives into some easily-managed pattern. The Vatican’s traditional emphasis is that God commands humans to procreate. Good sex has the potential to produce children; bad sex is everything else. Bad sex includes heterosexual acts involving contraceptives; masturbation; gay sex acts of all sorts. The equation of sex and procreation remained convincing for centuries because contraceptive devices were expensive, unreliable and even more comic in appearance than they are now. Now, however, readily available contraception has transformed the way in which human beings use and experience sex. Sex has always been fun: contraception has shown that the fun can be detached from the possibility of having children. The Christian tradition is now faced with the reality that pleasure and procreation are two separate purposes of sexuality, and many parts of the Christian Church, especially the Vatican, are baffled and angry.
How can Christianity cope? A first step would be to recognize that its traditional views on sexual intercourse were filched from non-Christian sources. Christianity is a complex system with two main strands: Jewish and Greek. Of the two, the Greek has made the running for nearly two thousand years. Even though Jesus was a Galilean Jew and probably had little contact with Greeks, the enthusiasts who wrote up his life and discussed his ideas took Christianity far from its Jewish roots. Most of their potential audience had a Greek cultural background, and in trying to make Greeks understand the message, Christianity absorbed the culture which it was trying to capture.
In particular, Aristotle’s wholly wrong-headed discussion of human biology lies behind the Vatican’s obstinate urging of sex-for-procreation. Aristotle asserted that male semen was the most important factor in the conception of a child. Male seed contained the entire fetus in embryo: a woman’s function was simply to act as an incubator while the child grew. Even practicing doctors agreed: the standard Roman authority Galen said that there was no difference between sowing seed in the womb and sowing the earth. Hence the superstitious value attributed to semen in ancient discussion of sexuality: to produce semen in any other context but procreation was to kill a human being.
Christian theologians in late second-century Egypt took up the theme: ‘to have sex for any purpose other than to produce children is to violate nature’, said Clement of Alexandria. It does not inspire confidence in Alexandrian judgment on matters sexual that Clement’s successor, Origen, is said to have castrated himself because he regarded his sexual organs as a source of moral danger. However, these views on sex were so influential in the Church that we can call the equation of sex and procreative potential the Alexandrian rule. The rule was repeated with enthusiasm by Thomas Aquinas, who did so much to make the Church of Rome see the world through Aristotle’s eyes. And so matters in the Vatican rest from the 13th to the 21st century, although its celibate theologians apparently do not now adopt Origen’s desperate measures.
Once Aristotle and the Alexandrian rule have been banished to the theological lumber-room, Christianity can draw on its own resources. Christianity, whether or not you think it’s true, is a love-poem. It should not be afraid of love, even when the love seems dangerous and unfamiliar. Christianity has danger built into it. One of its central liturgical symbols is alcohol: Eucharistic wine, which is both an icon of life and fun and an icon of death and destruction. The Bible is a library on the subject of love. Its story begins with God creating the world out of his love, and seeing that it is good.
But the Christian love-poem is incomplete without its story of danger embraced and overcome. God enters flesh and in his infinite love, takes on all the dangers of human suffering and imperfections, but also human dignity and joy. It was love which brought him to the Cross.
Conservative Christians often mock liberal discussions of Christian love as wishy-washy avoidance of serious moral issues. But there is nothing wishy-washy in taking the danger at the heart of Christianity seriously. Sexual relationships are all the more dangerous for having experienced the contraceptive revolution of the last century. But in their untidy modern reality, they are just as much an icon of Christ as any neat moral scheme from the ancient world.
Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the History of the Church at Saint Cross College in the University of Oxford. He is the author of “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years,” recently published by Viking.